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The force behind physics demonstrations

By Austen Hufford, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 19, 2013

In a large, empty Dennison lecture hall Friday afternoon, three people wheeled in a large copper Tesla coil, a device that produces high-voltage, low-current electricity. After efficiently setting everything up, the device was powered on. An off-kilter electric sound filled the hall and bright blue sparks emanated from the coil’s top in seemingly random directions. Two people slowly walked around the coil — intently checking for misplaced internal connections.

The power was cut. Someone mentioned the machine sounded off, and a protective shielding panel on the device was removed. An internal part was adjusted — by mere millimeters — and the machine was powered on again. This process was repeated over and over: turn off, small adjustment, turn on, listen, look, try again until it was just right.

The employees at the University’s Physics Demonstration Lab had to make sure this demonstration — one of their more dangerous — was correctly calibrated because, well, that’s just what they do: Build, correct and perfect.

Buried in the basement of Dennison, accessible through a second story staircase or going through one of two lecture halls, a team of three works daily to imagine, build and perfect in-class physics demonstrations and experiments. From simply visualizing an electronic field to loudly showing the effects of a Tesla coil, the Physics Demonstration Lab is used to increase learning and occasionally awaken napping students in physics classes everyday.

Building to educate

A demonstration is first thought out and planned, then gets prototyped for feasibility. If the project is deemed successful, a first build is done and sometimes second and third remakes are required because of durability, weight or myriad other concerns. Eventually it is deemed classroom ready and added to the catalogue. Even at this stage, the demonstration can still be changed and updated as feedback is received.

Laboratory Manager Warren Smith and Lecture Demonstrators Monika Wood and Matthew Jackson arrive one hour before a class starts. They see the schedule of demonstrations for the day with many last minute additions from professors and set up what’s needed for the first block of classes on movable carts.

While classes are in session, the three set up experiments for the next class, while working to fix and refine demonstrations. The basement laboratory is a curious scientist’s paradise. Situated just yelling distance from the lecture halls — in case anything goes wrong — the large space consists of a small office with computers, a large shelved storage area and a workroom.

With the feel of the warehouse on Discovery’s “Mythbusters,” the lab has a large assortment of, well, almost anything. Children’s toys, saws, wires, speakers of every size, all carefully organized and put away. When a professor has an idea for a new experiment, Smith and his coworkers know what needs to be bought and what is already on hand.

As class time approaches, the lab busies with activity, and when class is finally dismissed, there is a NASCAR-esque pit crew race to move the experiments out of the classrooms and move new ones in. Chalkboards wiped down experiments set up, in under 10 minutes.

All professors need to do is actually run and explain the demonstrations during class.

Demonstrated learning

Typically used in large lecture halls — where introductory science classes are often held — the demonstrations break up monotonous classes but also reinforce learning in their own right.

In-class demonstrations can primarily benefit learning in two ways, according to Rachel Niemer, associate director for the University’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. Aside from providing a break during long lectures, the demonstrations make students actively think about the material instead of passively ingesting it.

University professors view the demonstrations as one tool to help make lessons stick in the minds of easily distracted students. Students view the experiments as a welcome reprieve from PowerPoint presentations and another way to help grasp a concept.

“Usually when you teach something, some new idea, new concept, you want the students to immediately come to grips with it,” Physics Prof. Gregory Tarlé said. “You want them to see that what you’re teaching them has applications in real life. You want to make that connection by showing them the demonstration.”

Professors are always calling, e-mailing and visiting the physics lab. Many times, they are just ordering an experiment for class from the large catalogue of experiments that have already been built and tested by the lab. Frequently, however, professors are calling with a new idea for an experiment, asking to see if a concept can be shown in demonstration form, or even just offering or asking for improvements for an already created one.


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